A/N: Reminders (jic): "nii-san" means "older brother" and "ototo" means "younger brother. "Hara-kiri" is ritual suicide.

Chapter Three

Kankuro clung to the banister, determined to make it downstairs to the kitchen. An entire day had passed since he'd suffered a mild accidental overdose on the new muscle relaxers and pain killers the med nins had given him, and he'd spent that day unpleasantly stoned, pondering the reality of his inevitable death and obsessing about the particulars of the afterlife.

"Never again," he muttered, stumbling down to the final step. It had been a horrid feeling. Fortunately, Temari had been home all day while Gaara was on a mission, and she'd talked to him, brought him food, even drawn him a bath and then helped him to the washroom.

Today, though, the situation was reversed: Temari was on a mission, and Gaara was home. Gaara had actually been taking decent care of him with Temari's direction, but Kankuro was determined to make it to the kitchen and fix his own breakfast. He leaned against the walls, supporting his weight as he crossed the traditional living/dining room in their wing of the expansive, multi-purpose Kazekage's mansion, and felt oddly pleased that even in his weakened condition, his footsteps made no sound against the straw tatami floor.

As he entered the kitchen, Kankuro saw that Temari had left food for her brothers. He rested momentarily against the modern kitchen table that had been crammed into the room, then launched himself at the counter. Awaiting him was semi-warm rice slowly drying out in the rice cooker.

"Not just rice again," he mumbled to himself, but he pulled a bowl from the cabinet and dipped out a helping. He glanced at the fridge, hoping for at least some pickled eggplant, but he felt exhausted from his trip and unable to push himself further. Even as he considered moving to the table, his legs tried to give out on him, and he clutched the counter. "Damn!"

Gaara entered the room then, apparently intent on finding breakfast as well. He paused just inside the doorway, his eyes widening slightly. "Kankuro?"

The older boy tried to summon a smile. "Yo." He did his best to don his usual mask and not reveal the level of his exhaustion. "Temari left us . . . rice."

"I can see that." Gaara paused, his expression as impassive as ever. "Why are you out of bed? You're supposed to be in bed for two more days."

Kankuro shrugged, still trying to keep up his punk mask — to pretend he was better off than he was. "If I stay in that room one more day, I'll probably commit hara-kiri. I'm just . . . well, if I can't be working on something, I have to at least be somewhere interesting."

One of Gaara's eyes arched faintly. "You find the kitchen interesting?" His gaze fell to the way Kankuro leaned against the counter. "Your balance is still disturbed, or you're still too weak. You should be sitting down."

Kankuro watched his brother for a moment, realizing that Gaara's stating of the obvious was another deadpan show of concern. He smiled. "Nah. The kitchen is boring; I'm just hungry." He grabbed his bowl of rice with one hand, then turned himself toward the table. "Although you're right. I need to sit." He stepped forward, only to have his knees buckle, throwing him back against the counter. "Damn!" He thunked the bowl on the counter, spilling a few clumps of rice. His knees didn't recover, though, and he realized he was going to end up face-first in the floor.

However, before he could hit the floor, a thin layer of sand surrounded him and supported him. "You should know your limits," Gaara said, stepping forward and wrapping his arm under his brother. "Come on." He hauled Kankuro toward the table.

"Sorry," Kankuro mumbled, glancing at his little brother. Gaara's arms were strong, the muscles compact from years of carrying his sand armor, but Kankuro felt protected instead of endangered. He found himself marveling on two counts: one, Gaara was carrying him for a change; and two, he truly wasn't afraid to be left completely alone with him.

His younger brother set him in a chair, returning for the rice and bringing it to him. Then he crossed his arms, staring down at Kankuro without blinking. "I'm sure your bedroom is far better."

The impassive tone did not fool Kankuro. He closed one eye and gazed up at him, unconsciously falling back on his typical mannerisms. "After four days, no. Trust me on that. If I could work on my puppets —" He paused, considering the scenario. "Actually, at this point, even that wouldn't stop my stir-craziness."

Gaara cocked his head to the side, and Kankuro felt as though he was being analyzed. After a moment, the younger boy took the chair beside him. "Why do you do that?"

It seemed a simple question, but Kankuro wasn't sure what he meant. "Do . . . what?"

"When you speak to people, particularly people you don't know or don't trust . . ." He stopped and mimicked Kankuro's closing of one eye. "That."

Shocked, Kankuro stared at his bowl of rice momentarily. Since Gaara didn't fit into the category of 'don't know', the younger boy clearly believed he fell into the category of 'don't trust.' Granted, this had been true for years, but Gaara seemed to be working hard to change, and Kankuro didn't want him to feel shut out. "It's not that. Trust, I mean." He stopped to consider his own actions, having never thought it through before. "Actually, I tend to do it when I'm bored or when I'm talking to people I don't know. In this case, I was talking about being bored." He shrugged. "I guess I'm trying to look smug, to be blunt."

Gaara frowned, looking faintly puzzled. "I'm not around others enough to know if this is common. Do other people do these things?"

"Everyone has mannerisms that are theirs alone. Even you." Kankuro picked up a pair of chopsticks left over from the previous week's takeout and snapped them apart, considering his younger brother. First he'd spoken of teammates, then of being a sibling. Now he was quizzing Kankuro on being human. He was definitely trying to piece together some things. "You constantly cross your arms, and it generally indicates either boredom or irritation. In my case, I try to look smug because —" He interrupted himself with a snort. "— because I realized early in life that the bigger of an asshole I am, the more people leave me alone."

Gaara seemed to ponder this answer, then nodded. "I understand. I kill people." His brow furrowed, as though he'd disturbed himself. "Or . . . I used to." He looked down at his arms, then uncrossed them. Within moments, he crossed them again.

"Heh." Kankuro grinned. "A full two seconds." He gazed down at his lukewarm rice, frowned, then broke custom and drowned it in soy sauce before taking a bite. He watched Gaara as he ate, marveling that he'd managed to have this much of a conversation with him, especially for the third time in one week. Still, he hadn't been holding such conversations with Gaara long enough to be sure he could keep it up, and that made him sweat a bit. "You should get something to eat, too."

Gaara nodded silently, stood, and walked to the rice cooker. As he dipped a helping into a bowl, he spoke again. "How can you trust someone if they change their appearance or their personality depending on the situation?"

Kankuro nearly choked on his food, then swallowed hard. "Is — is that what you think I do?" He stared at the table, perturbed. "It's a mask, Gaara. Who I am doesn't really change. What I'm changing is what I allow others to see. I can create as many new designs for my face paint as I want and cop as much attitude as I want, but it doesn't change the person I am."

The younger boy turned toward him with wide eyes, detectably shocked. "I . . . didn't mean you." His characteristic frown tugged at the corners of his mouth.

Kankuro began sweating again, wondering if he'd revealed too much, said too much. Outwardly, though, he shrugged. "The same can be said for other people. No one acts the same around their parents as they do their siblings or around their siblings as they do their friends. How they act on a mission is different than how they act at home. Some situations require more formality or respect; others allow you to say or do anything you want. You adjust based on what's 'socially acceptable.' It's not that they're trying to trick people. But they wouldn't, say, cuss in front of their mothers, but they would in front of their friends."

"And if you do it wrong, you commit a social sin. You are shunned. You are untrustworthy because you don't abide by the human code." Gaara wrinkled his lip, looking momentarily disgusted. Then his voice grew quiet. "If these mannerisms are normal, and yet so complex . . . maybe it's impossible after all." Suddenly, his expression turned almost imploring. "How do you make others trust you if you aren't consistent?"

It?Kankuro wanted to ask. Did his brother mean being human? "Gaara . . ." He patted the table where the boy had been sitting. "Hey, sit down. I'll try to explain."

Although he hesitated, Gaara grabbed his bowl and sat at the table again. He grabbed a pair of chopsticks, held the bowl up to his face, and then spooned some rice into his mouth.

Kankuro realized his younger brother was watching him over the bowl's rim with an air of blank expectancy. "First of all, you areconsistent. That's what makes it hard for people to approach you. Since you act the same around everyone, no one can tell what you really think. Your crossed arms indicate you don't want people to approach you, and your impassive expression is unreadable, except you tend to faintly frown most of the time." He internally cringed but pushed forward anyway. "People think you're pissed off all the time as a result. And since you're always this way regardless of the age, rank, gender, or whatever else of the person, they don't know how to respond. Or they assume you hate them all." He grimaced faintly at his honesty.

Gaara lowered his bowl and gazed at his rice. "I . . . see. That's to be expected, I suppose. That was true until recently." He paused. "But you're wrong on one count. I am inconsistent. Monsters are never consistent."

Without thinking, Kankuro started to reach out to his brother and touch his arm, but he quickly stopped himself. "Don't say that." He hesitated, struggling with two impulses: the first was his longtime fear of his brother; the second was his desire to encourage this new Gaara. When he finally spoke, his voice came out much softer than normal. "Youaren't the monster."

"But I have one in me," Gaara replied, blunt. "One that can't be fully controlled." He frowned, his expression solemn. "How can anyone come to trust me, knowing that I might kill them?" He set down his bowl and folded his arms.

Kankuro absently chewed on the end of his chopsticks for a moment. Why was Gaara suddenly so concerned about this? "They trusted Father," he pointed out. "They trusted him enough to make him Kazekage, and he killed his own wife. He killed anyone who didn't do as he liked. It was himwho was the monster."

Kankuro sighed and set his chopsticks across his empty bowl. "Gaara . . . I can tell you're working hard right now to control Shukaku. If you control him, you won't be inconsistent. And when it comes to shinobi, aren't we all killers? I've got a rep as a huge asshole; I could kill someone just as easily. But I do my duty when called upon, and that's what people want: a team player, a hardworking member of the community. They trust me for that. Can you really say you haven't been doing the same lately?"

"Maybe." Gaara looked downcast, the shadows around his eyes deepening, but he seemed to remember himself, bringing the impassive mask into place. "They did trust Father as Kazekage. They were fools." A small smirk wrinkled the edge of his nose. "It doesn't say much about the citizens. But perhaps — " He stopped suddenly, studying Kankuro. "You put on a good mask. But you're right: it's still you underneath, and you're tired."

Realizing his advice and care had been brushed off, Kankuro became irritated. Why, exactly, was he trying to reach out to his brother — especially if Gaara were going to ignore or deny everything he said? "Drop dead tired. But I don't want to go back to my room." He shoved the empty rice bowl away from himself, knocking the chopsticks off in the process, and then sighed. Maybe he would try one last time, anyway, even if it did piss him off. "Just . . . be yourself, Gaara. Be the person you want to be. If you are that person, then others will eventually sense your genuineness. Don't worry about the masks and mannerisms and games. If they don't accept the real you — " He paused to stare down the younger boy. "— the humanyou, the person you're trying to become, then it's meaningless anyway."

Gaara gazed at his brother for a long moment. "I said something wrong." He turned his stare upon his own empty rice bowl. "I'm too new at this. You'll have to explain what I did wrong."

"You just did it again. Twice in a row." Kankuro lowered his face into his hands and rubbed his eyes. "I'm trying to tell you something, and you aren't acknowledging that you even heard me. Look, I know —" He stopped and cringed to himself. "— I know you don't consider me your nii-san,even though you did figure out a few things about siblings the other night. But what I'm telling you . . . I'm not just mouthing off here." He dropped his hands and sighed explosively. "I'm trying to give you some useful advice, dammit!" It was odd, but for some reason he couldn't explain, Kankuro felt hurt that Gaara had ignored his words. Then again, it was his own fault for being stupid enough to open up to his younger brother.

Yet, to Kankuro's surprise, Gaara's shoulders slumped. "I know." His voice was a quiet rasp. "I said some things in the past . . . I told you I never considered you my brother. But like you said the other night, we're brothers by blood, and — and maybe something more." He stared at the table and didn't look up. "Because after all that's happened, even after what I just did, you're still trying." He closed his eyes, remained utterly still for a moment, then slowly opened them again. "I wasn't trying to ignore you. I've listened to everything you've said, and in truth, I consider your advice . . ." His voice dipped to a near whisper. ". . . helpful."

For a moment, Kankuro forgot to breathe, then he felt a blush spread across his cheeks at what could only be considered a high compliment, coming from Gaara. He watched his younger brother with wide eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was uncharacteristically soft. "Then listen to your nii-sanand just be . . . the person you aim to be. It will succeed with time." He reached out again, paused, then squeezed Gaara's arm just as he had two days earlier. "I am —" He stopped short, not sure what he should or even could say. "Well, I'm here."

Although Gaara stared at him with that impassive expression, he nodded.

Kankuro released him and returned the nod. "Okay. Then I have a request."

Gaara merely raised a hairless brow.

"Sad as it is, I need help walking." The older boy snorted. "And I'd like to spend the morning in the garden. I've been trapped inside too long."

"A simple request." Gaara stood and grabbed Kankuro's wrist, pulling his arm over his shoulders as his older brother pushed himself to his feet. Once they gained their balance, he guided them out of the kitchen and toward the door.

Kankuro smiled at him. "Thanks." When they reached the door, they each slipped on a pair of zori in the entryway. Then Kankuro slid the door open for them, only to end up shielding his eyes as they stepped into the sunlight. "Man, it seems like such a glare after being inside for so many days in a row."

From under his hand, Kankuro glanced around at the sparse mansion garden with its tropical plants, glittering decorative rocks, and stone pathways. "Maybe in the corner by the fountain; there's some shade there."

Gaara turned them that direction without replying, also wincing in the scorching sunlight.

"And it's okay, you know," the older boy added, almost as an afterthought.

"What is?" Gaara steered them toward the bench in the corner.

"Your questions. Ask anytime."

Gaara's eyes widened, his gaze dropping to the ground. He nodded slowly. "Okay . . . I will." He guided his brother to the bench, then helped him ease down. Without another word, he turned to leave; however, he only took two steps before he paused. He glanced over his shoulder, stared at his brother for a moment, then joined him.

Kankuro hid a smile, oddly pleased that Gaara had chosen to stay. He stretched out his legs and relaxed, inhaling the sweet scent of the tropical flowers and the fresh smell of the water trickling in the fountain. "What a relief."

Gaara looked around as though he'd never seen the garden before. "It's all right."

Struck by the realization he was actually sharing a quiet moment with his younger brother, Kankuro smiled at him again. "Yeah. Not as good as being out on a mission, but way better than being stuck in my room."

Gaara nodded and turned at an angle to face the fountain. In doing so, however, he accidentally leaned against his brother's shoulder. He jerked away as though startled, hesitated, then relaxed back against him.

Shocked senseless, Kankuro didn't react at first. Then he grinned to himself, strangely touched. Could this boy actually become his ototoby more than blood?

After several minutes of silence, Gaara spoke quietly, a small smile bending up the corner of his mouth. "Kankuro . . . thank you."

Kankuro thought he understood Gaara's sentiment, so he didn't bother to ask for clarification. He just relaxed with his brother. "Hey, sure thing."

A/N: This chapter was co-written with Darkhelmetj via MSN Messenger roleplaying. She also acted as betareader, so much thanks to her on both counts.

Sorry it took me so long to get this written, transposed, and posted. My muse and I collapsed for about a week there. Updates on "A Shoulder to Lean On" and "The Greatest of These" are forthcoming.

As always, thank you to everyone who reviews! I appreciate the feedback.